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The Policy Ask with Sarah Longlands: “The ambitions of metro mayors won’t be realised without strong councils”

The chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies on building community wealth, growing up during the Troubles, and local government austerity.

By Spotlight

Sarah Longlands is the chief executive Centre for Local Economic Strategies, a charity focused on developing progressive economies, focused on people, planet and place. Prior to her current role, she was director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North think. Longlands also completed a PhD at the University of Glasgow in urban studies.

How do you start your working day?

My day starts with getting my two daughters out of bed and ready for school. After a short walk to drop the girls off, I’ll get the coffee on, identify the two or three key things I want to achieve that day, and crack on.

What has been your career high?

Taking over as chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (Cles) in 2021 has definitely been a high point. I love working with such a talented and supportive team from our offices in Manchester. There is endless variety and the chance to meet wilful individuals who are prepared to think and do differently. I was really proud of our recent report Women’s Work: How Gender Equality can Sarah Longlands: “The regional ambitions of metro mayors will not be realised without strong councils” The Policy Ask Deliver Stronger Local Economies – which pointed out how important it is that women are able to take the opportunities available to them to work and lead.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Managing a team alongside a busy workload at IPPR North during Covid-19 was really challenging, particularly at the beginning when guidance was scarce and everyone was fearful. I remember driving around Manchester delivering computers to the team. It felt like the end of days.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

I’d try to urge myself to recognise my achievements, be confident in who I am, stop worrying about what others think, and be confident that I can make a difference.

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What political figure inspires you?

I grew up in the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland and experienced first hand the impact of fear, violence and bigotry. So I have always been inspired by politicians like the late John Hume, who not only campaigned for peace but who worked to create places that are underpinned by the principles of social justice, tolerance and democracy.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

English devolution is continuing to roll out through the establishment of mayoral combined authorities. However, the approach to devolution policy in England still lacks clarity and purpose. There is still a serious lack of understanding among voters as to what metro mayors and combined authorities do.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

Local government austerity. Long-term sustainable funding settlements for local government are essential to supporting local services. Done right they can support local economies. The regional ambitions of metro mayors will not be realised without strong councils.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Scottish government’s Community Wealth Building Act commits Holyrood to community wealth building. It means every part of the public sector must commit to maximising spending towards community wealth initiatives across Scotland, through their employment, finance, and use of land and assets, with the goal of democratising ownership of the economy in the long term.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

I think that the scale of the US government’s commitments to promote equitable community development sets an important precedent for how policymakers in the West can place social and economic justice at the heart of economic policymaking. 

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

A Well-being of Future Generations Act, like we have in Wales, but for every region and nation of the UK. This could be used to challenge the growth-at-all costs mindset of the UK Treasury, and require decision-makers to build economies where progress is measured by how well they generate good lives.

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Economic Growth, published on 3 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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